How Jenny Yang Scored Her First Action Role — Fighting Michelle Yeoh

Four years ago, Jenny Yang reached a plateau in her career. She’d achieved many of her goals — she was a successful stand-up comedian, she’d launched her own comedy festival focused on platforming Asian American talent, she’d worked as a staff writer on Busy Tonight — so she sat down to chart something new. Yang decided that what she really wanted to do was become an action comedy star. She trained for a half-marathon and took up kickboxing training. But then a casting director for a new Netflix show about a Taiwanese crime family was scouring the internet during a late-in-the-game search and came across one of her viral stand-up videos. “All they told me was that it was a gang drama and I wouldn’t have to do any accents,” Yang says. “And then they gave me the role and were like, ‘By the way, you will be fighting Michelle Yeoh in the only fight scene she will be doing the entire first season.’ I screamed, ran around my office and then went back to the Zoom to say yes.”

The multihyphenate is now celebrating her first major onscreen role. The Brothers Sun, which premiered Jan. 4, sees Yeoh as the matriarch of a family thrust into a Taipei crime syndicate; Yang plays a rival assassin. Her role is both the coming-alive of a years-old vision board and a professional pivot in keeping with Yang’s pattern of enterprise. After college, she worked in community organizing before deciding to go after a long-lingering dream to write and perform, promoting herself as a comedian and later starring in viral videos for BuzzFeed alongside folks like Quinta Brunson that built her a legion of fans across the country. “You have to be very internally motivated to believe you are worthy of being listened to,” she says, “but in this business, it’s good to have one thing — a belief in yourself — that you can control.”

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From left: Yang as Xing, Sam Song Li as Bruce Sun and Toy Lei as Auntie Victoria on Netflix’s The Brothers Sun, created by Brad Falchuk and Byron Wu.
From left: Yang as Xing, Sam Song Li as Bruce Sun and Winnie Wu as Mrs. Liu on Netflix’s The Brothers Sun, created by Brad Falchuk and Byron Wu.

Yang also knew from the jump that she wanted to find her way into a TV writers room — that would offer another way to diversify her chances at success. She worked as an assistant on Whitney and eventually was hired to write for Last Man Standing. She was hesitant about the gig because she’d never worked in scripted comedy but now sees it as one of her more valuable experiences. “On my first day, everyone went out to have lunch on the balcony of our office at CBS Radford, and it felt like the first day at a new school,” she says. “Everyone very warmly invited me to join them, but then I go to sit down and there was no space. It was so awkward. When I went home I realized, this is a metaphor. I’m not going to wait for someone to make space at the table for me — I’m going to bring my own table.”

And now that she’s got a seat at one of the biggest streaming tables, Yang is soaking it all in — especially the chance to do battle with Yeoh.

“One of the first moves I do in the fight scene is a choke hold, and she could tell I was hesitating. She put her hand all up in her face and neck and was like, ‘Go ahead, you won’t hurt me, see?’ ” she says. “It was Michelle Yeoh telling me to please, choke her out. It was a good reminder to always just go for it.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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